Tuesday, February 7, 2017


I've been reading How Will Capitalism End?, by Wolfgang Streeck, and had hoped that by now I would be farther into it. Unfortunately it is written in an academic style that would make Richard Feynman's head spin, and I find myself translating many of the sentences to enhance their intelligibility as I read, which slows down the process considerably. Moreover, the padding with academic baggage reminds me of my brief period as a philosophy graduate student, when I kept saying to myself "Am I supposed to find this interesting?" I dropped out after two quarters. Nevertheless, Streeck's subject is one of the most important problems facing mankind, and, oddly, it seems to be an obscure field that attracts little attention.

In the view of Streeck and his colleagues, capitalism has always been unstable, with a tendency to disintegrate. He sees the current form of neoliberal capitalism as irreversibly unstable and in the early stages of permanent collapse. The underlying "systemic disorders" he identifies are "stagnation, oligarchic redistribution, the plundering of the public domain, corruption and global anarchy." The book offers a far wider analysis of the scenario discussed by Thomas Piketty and is an important contribution to the field, but I am finding Streeck's reliance on Marxist concepts grating, because I prefer to think in rough biological terms, which have a distinct empirical element that was mostly absent in early sociological thought.

The phenomena described by Streeck are quite apparent, and you can see them playing out in real time. The election of Donald Trump after the publication of the book is a perfect example, because Trump represents the first American president to resemble a Russian oligarch. However, Trump has already demonstrated his incompetence as an oligarch and is doomed to fail, because his singularity of purpose – public admiration – is not accompanied by the knowledge or skill to control the U.S. government. Sooner or later his supporters, who were in a minority to begin with, will lose faith in him, and he will be swept out of office before you know it. Nevertheless, the sentiment that Trump exploited in order to get elected will still be present, and Streeck's analysis will hold up if a more competent oligarch emerges after Trump is gone.

Rather than think in terms such as "class solidarity," which are faintly ludicrous to me, I prefer to think in terms of organisms and resources. Humans are very good at exploiting resources – so good that they often deplete them entirely and are forced to find new ones elsewhere. We are living in an era in which a mythology surrounding the concept of capitalism gives it the aura of imparting eternal life. It is no coincidence that this mythology originated in the U.S., which is the only major world power that still embraces Christianity. Unfortunately, there is nothing magic about capitalism, and we are seeing this now, with markets exploited to their maximum doomed to diminishing future returns. It is true that once upon a time there were major markets that took many decades to exploit fully, such as the market for automobiles. Those markets are becoming rarer, which helps explain why the financial services sector has grown so much of late: it is one of a very small number of existing markets where large profits are still possible, and it depends to some degree on the theft of public funds for those profits. The Great Recession, the lack of accountability on Wall Street and the attempt by Donald Trump to eliminate regulations designed to prevent a repeat all fit Streeck's narrative perfectly.

Streeck and his colleagues differ on when the final collapse will occur, but the most pessimistic think it will be by mid-century. They seem to be at a loss when it comes to what will replace the current system and how the transition will occur. I still believe that there may be technological solutions that could solve all of the problems if they are not abused. This is where I think biological thinking opens a window that professional sociologists may not recognize. I notice that the kinds of people who are extremely successful in technological fields these days tend to project strong eusocial beliefs when it comes to the future of mankind. They often go overboard in supporting programs to help humanity and ostensibly show little similarity to the robber barons of yore or Donald Trump, who himself seems to be a misguided anachronism. As long as humans remain human, a permanent dystopian outcome is not inevitable.

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